Randolph Caldecott, his illustrations, sketches and picture books
Randolph Caldecott, one of the 'inventors' of the picture book
Randolph Caldecott was a Victorian illustrator who made a huge impact in his relatively short career as an illustrator of picture books. This is the area where the world will remember him for many centuries but he also excelled in other fields of art.
Although Caldecott had weak health, he loved sports and nature. Both were main themes in his paintings, caricatures and illustrations.
We'll explore his biography, works and influence he had on so many picture books illustrators.
(illustration from Hey Diddle Diddle, all used images are in Public Domain)
Caldecott's Early years
Born in 1846 as the third of thirteen children of John, accountant and businessman, he had a ground to become a worker in a bank and as fifteen years old boy started his first job in a bank in Whitchurch. Being a clerk left him enough free time for long walks, hunting, fishing, visiting fairs or just wandering around. Although popular in all circles pen and ink were his favorite companions.
Few years later he was transferred to Manchester where the doors to a whole new world of society opened to him and his sketchbook. He had a chance to study businessmen and other interesting characters in big city together with complex relations among them, which resulted in many good caricatures.
Caldecott still used his free time for visiting countryside where he further improved his drawing style and started learning the art of water coloring.
His first drawings were published in a local paper in 1868 and he had first exhibited picture in 1869. A year later he was introduced to Thomas Armstrong (director of South Kensington Museum) and Mark Lemon, editor of legendary Punch Magazine.
Both were very influential and could open many doors for an aspiring artist.
One of most popular Caldecott's books
There are many great illustrators, but none of them made such impact in so short time. He practically invented modern picture books!
Picture books are an important part of growing up. With works of Randolph Caldecott's illustrations, we can be sure our kids have best possible material available.
Randolph Caldecott was invited to come to London and do some sketching. He made a lot of them and his fresh, sometimes almost grotesque view helped to make him noticed. Unfortunately, most of his best works from those times remained unpublished because they were not seen as appropriate.
They were simply not showing enough respect to aristocracy and although editors fancied his drawings, rejected them.
Anyway, the fresh and lively style he showed was constantly creating new opportunities, first of his illustrations for Punch was published in June 1872 and later in the summer he got a job of illustrating his first book. It was a summer travel to the German mountains where he could join his two favorite themes: amazing nature and interesting characters.
The Harz Mountains got many nice reviews and Caldecott became an illustrator in demand.
Caldecott learns sculpting
Roughly at the same time, he started learning new artistic techniques. He made an interesting agreement with then already famous French sculptor Aime-Jules Dalou who lived in London in sort of exile. Caldecott was teaching Dalou English and Dalou showed him how to work with clay. His other occupation was visiting the London ZOO where he studied especially birds.
It was 1874 when he was offered to illustrate Washington Irving's Sketch Book. The offer came from J.D. Cooper, one of two finest engravers of his time (Evans, of course, being the other). He also made series of decorative paintings of birds for different influential people.
When he finished work on Washington Irving's book, it was rejected by one publisher as too vulgar but was accepted by another and published under the title Old Christmas:
Old Christmas was a success and soon sort of sequel followed. It was another part of Irving's Sketch Book, this time, titled Bracebridge Hall.
The idea of illustrating Aesop's Fables seemed perfect for the young but already established artist who's most powerful areas were drawings of animals and portrays of human characters.
The full title of the book was Some of Aesop's fables with modern instances and as you can see in the gallery below, the artist made a list of fables and chose 22 to present their 'classic' and 'modern' implications at the same time.
Let's take a look at the result:
Unfortunately, a project of Aesop's Fables wasn't sufficiently elaborated from the artistic point of view and it was never considered as one of Caldecott's top creations. If we can use his own words: "Don't expect too much from this book."
Never mind, he was loaded with commissions and the printing technology was rapidly improving. It seemed all was setting out to prepare him for biggest achievements in his career.
Illustrations for North Italian folk were among Randolph Caldecott's 'traveling projects. He had health issues and doctors suggested him to visit warmer countries during winters. Breton Folk was one of the books made on one of those occasions.
Breton Folk - Randolph Caldecott's illustration
Picture Books by Randolph Caldecott
It was 1878 when Edmund Evans proposed to Caldecott illustrating children books in color.
R.C., as he mostly signed his letters, mentioned to his friends 'he gets small, small royalty', but he took the job and success of 'The house that Jack built' surpassed all expectations.
Evans had already built successful cooperation with Walter Crane and knowing Crane will not work for him for long, he chose another artist with the great potential to double Evans' profits. Actually triple, because he started to work with Kate Greenaway too, but this is another story.
Evans certainly knew how to publish picture books for kids. With Randolph Caldecott, he got a jackpot. In next eight years, they published two picture books every year mostly consisting of nursery rhymes and they eventually sold more than 800 thousand copies!
Babes in the Wood
This old nursery rhyme is far from being appropriate for children by today's standard. It has elements of classic fairy tales like the story of Hansel and Gretel or Snow White, but no happy ending. Randolph Caldecott became one of the most respected illustrators in the world. He was not praised only for his superb technique of line drawing, he also made important step forward in the media of picture books.
If we can say Walter Crane changed the history of children's books with his sense for details and especially incorporation of the image, no matter how big it was, in the book, and his huge talent for design, Caldecott's contribution was more contextual.
Before Caldecott, the picture was more or less the companion to the text. What the writer wrote, the illustrator draw.
But not anymore.
From his series of picture books on the media changed forever. A picture was not simply illustrating what was already written. It offered additional information and interpretation and from Caldecott's series of picture books word in this media was not suffice anymore.
A real picture book should offer words and pictures but in a way where the picture speaks instead of words and words speak instead of pictures. One plus one should never be two anymore. Picture books should show a synergy!
Who was more influential?
Health problems and a sad end
Unfortunately, Randolph Caldecott's health was constantly deteriorating and his many travels to warm countries only postponed the inevitable. He died in Florida in extremely cold winter in 1886.
He was not even 40 years old. Who knows what he could achieve with more time given?
Many projects, including Jack and the beanstalk in hexameters by Hallam Tennyson (son of poet Alfred Tennyson), stayed unfinished. We can only imagine how would sketches, as one on the right pan out if Caldecott would have a chance to finish it.
In honor of his name and legacy since 1937 Randolph Caldecott Medal is awarded to the illustrator of 'the most distinguished picture book in America. Together with Kate Greenaway Medal, it is probably the most prestigious award for picture books illustrators in the world.
Trivia about Caldecott - to check your memoryview quiz statistics
Further readings - Want to know more about illustrators and children's literature?
I write for several sites and blogs. If you have found something interesting about Caldecott and his work, you are more than welcome to explore the fantasy world of fairies, witches, dwarfs, ogres and other magical creatures...
- Meet the classic illustrators!
Quick and sweet, just one illustrator with one illustration at the time. With few accompanying facts, of course. Just to get a clue and maybe a bit of motivation to explore more.
- Best illustrators in their best moments
A blog dedicated to artists and works which made lasting impression in the world of literature for children and youth. Sometimes we meet one artist and check his development, sometimes we explore different visions of different artists about the same
- Short history of picture books
This blog is written in Slovene language, but you can still enjoy in huge amount of spectacular pictures from the treasury of vintage works for kids,